Nebraska has spent the past year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a state, and this seems about as good a time as any to look at some recent and forthcoming local anniversaries.
First and foremost, this past year was the 150th anniversary of Omaha losing something very particular. When Nebraska was first founded, Omaha was its territorial capitol. This was always an unpopular move, largely because there were likely more people south of the Platte River than north, and so picking a northern city was seen as being a poor representation of the state’s population.
The location of the capitol was the source of considerable friction for many years. In 1867, when Nebraska was made a state, it was moved to Lincoln, south of the Platte.
This was, in its own way, a final humiliation for Stephen Douglas, who drafted the legislation that created the state of Nebraska and after whom Douglas County was named. Douglas had, years earlier, dated a woman named Mary Todd—who went on to marry Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had been the Democratic candidate for president, but members of his party were so offended by Douglas’s politicking in the creation of Kansas and Nebraska (abolitionists, in particular, were furious that his legislation left the question of slavery up to the states) that they broke off and formed their own party, the Republican Party. They would nominate Lincoln as their presidential candidate, and he would beat Douglas.
And now, at long last, the capitol of Nebraska would be moved from a county named after Douglas to a city named after Lincoln.
This past year also marked the 100th anniversary of Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan’s long-lasting and remarkably successful experiment—a self-contained, self-governed community designed to help at-risk youth (originally exclusively boys).
Although Flanagan, a native of Ireland, was likely partially inspired by movements for Irish self-rule in conceiving of a place where children ruled over themselves, Boys Town was very much a product of Omaha. Flanagan had originally sought to address a large number of itinerant laborers who used Omaha as a weigh station, creating a “workingman’s hotel” for those who were broke and needed a hand up.
But Flanagan soon found that there was a permanent underclass of adult men with chronic substance abuse problems and endless legal woes, most of whom seemed impossible to help. He realized he had to reach these men before they became adults, and so the idea for Boys Town was born.
2017 also marked a more contentious anniversary, the conclusion of Omaha’s attempts to annex several once-independent communities. Omaha has always been rather quick to annex nearby town and villages, and the city looked to absorb Dundee and South Omaha in 1915. But many residents weren’t eager to become part of Omaha and fought the annexation, mounting a two-year court battle that ultimately proved futile. Florence and Benson were also annexed in 1917.
The milestones keep on rolling. One hundred years ago, Fort Omaha set up its balloon school. The school was part of a series of experiments that would eventually lead to the development of the Air Force. In this instance, the school trained soldiers in the use of dirigibles, primarily for the sake of reconnaissance and forward observation for artillery.
Many of these soldiers went on to put this into practice during World War I, anchoring their balloons near the front lines in France, mapping the terrain, reporting enemy troop activities, and directing artillery where to target their munitions. This was a risky undertaking, as the dirigibles were appealing and poorly defended. Several German flying aces made their reputations as “balloon busters” for specifically targeting the dirigibles.
2017 was the 75th anniversary of another wartime venture, the 1942 Omaha scrap metal drive. The drive was started in response to a crisis in America’s steel factories, which were so overtaxed by the war effort that several were closing down.
Omaha World-Herald publisher Henry Doorly conceived of a three-week scrap metal drive to provide badly needed raw materials. At the end of the drive, Omahans had managed to locate or donate 67,000 tons of metal. The drive was so successful that it inspired a national scrap drive.
Now what? With the turning of the new year, what milestones can Omahans look forward to commemorating?
Here’s one for 2018: This is the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest quotes in political history, which came to us in 1988 courtesy of a vice presidential debate at the Civic Auditorium. The candidates were Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen.
The young, conventionally handsome Quayle styled himself after President John F. Kennedy, at least in terms of his senatorial experience (his actual style drew heavily from a Robert Redford film called The Candidate.) When Quayle made the mistake of mentioning Kennedy, Bentsen shot back at him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
The line has since become political shorthand to deflate pretentious, self-serving statements from politicians, although it probably should be noted that Quayle, and his fellow candidate George H.W. Bush, would go on to win the election.
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.